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Iron In Kumaun Goes Back To First Millennium BC
by D.P. Agrawal and Manikant Shah

The discovery and the use of iron by man was an epoch making event, which gave a fillip to his progress.  The discovery of iron was perhaps associated with copper smelting, as it was collected by accident when the furnace temperature reached above 1500º C.  It is also acknowledged that the use of meteoric iron was not unknown to the ancient civilizations.

Since many centers of iron technology have been identified in India, no single source of influence or independent center of iron technology can be identified.  On the other hand, the second urbanization of the Ganga – Yamuna Doab - must have required considerable quantities of iron.  The question remains whether Kumaun is the source of this iron.

This requires a closer look at the early evidence of iron technology in Kumaun.  Let’s examine the various components of this evidence:

1. Literary and folklore evidence
2. Archeological evidence
3. Distribution of iron bearing mineral resources
4. Metallurgical traditions

Literary Evidence

As an example of the literary evidence that may be cited in relation to the use of iron in Kumaun is the widespread use of words as prefixes/suffixes which related to iron in the local dialects and languages.  These words point to the importance of iron metallurgy in Kumaun.  Words like Lo, Lu, and Loha are directly related to iron.  The word Agar, on the other hand, relates to mines and mining activities.  Place names related to iron are Lohaghat, Loharkhet, Lob, Lukhani, and Assurchula.  The word Asur has direct reference to the iron using tribes spread over a wide area in north India, like Bihar.  The Asur folklore tradition is very strong in Kumaun and an early King Banasur is associated with the old iron site of Lohaghat.

The Himalayan Gazetteer (Atkinson) mentions a legend popular amongst the ironworkers on the borderland of Garhwal.  This legend relates the story of Kalia Lohar, whose ancestors forged the armaments for the Pandavas of the Mahabharat.  As a mark of respect to the legendry hero, the workers to this day set aside five pieces of coal before they begin work on iron.  The legend may point to the antiquity of iron technology in the region.

Atkinson also mentions the appointment of various officers, mineralogical surveyors, and experts by the British Government to assess the commercial viability of extracting the ores from the mines of Kumaun.  Atkinson refers to an order issued by the British Government to A. Laidlaw, a mineralogical surveyor, in which mention is made that the government was already aware of the considerable quantity of iron and copper ores present in the Kumaun area.  The government was also concerned "about the injury to the articles of British imports once the iron works were begun there."  The government even launched a company by the name of 'Kumaun Iron Works.'

Archaeological Evidence

The clinching evidence, however, comes from the extensive remains of iron working sites and slag found at these sites.  Mention of iron and iron mines in the old copper plates, ancient iron objects such as the massive trident at the Gopeshwar temple, and a live tradition of mining in the area all point to a rich tradition of iron metallurgy in the region.  Agrawal and Kharakwal have detailed such evidence of early iron metallurgy in Central Himalayas (1998), including the references to iron mineral occurrences in Kumaun.  They have also C-14 dated an iron metallurgy site, Uleni, near Pithoragarh, to c. 1000BC (PRL-1648, 1022-826 BC, calibrated value).

Distribution of iron minerals in Kumaun region

Vibha Tripathi (2001) in her recent book – The Age of Iron in South Asia – writes that the northernmost parts of Kumaun – Garhwal Himalayas have hematite and limonite ores in the Tertiary and the earlier sedimentary deposits, especially at Chamoli, Nainital and Almora region.  She also speculates that the early inhabitants of the Upper Ganga Plain must have exploited these deposits.  She further reports that in Nainital District iron ore of all grades is found near Lusgiani and hematite occurs near Khairna.  Almora also has hematite of red and brown variety and has recently yielded megaliths and iron working remains.  Atkinson, in his Gazetteer, says that iron mines were in Agar patti of Ramgarh pargana and the principal mines were Lusgiani, Nathuakhan ,Gulla and Satbunga, Patti Lakhanpur in Chaugarkha pargana, patti Darun, the mines Digatia and Thiratoli, Rangor patti at Jalal and Digarhia. Patti Kharahi at Lob.Patti Giwar in pargana Pali at Chiteli, Simelkhet , Gudi , Bailgaon , Mahakhauri and Tilwara.

Metallurgical Traditions

Copper metallurgical traditions in Kumaun continue to this day. Iron works, as reported by Atkinson, may have been continued until the beginning of 20th Century, when the British finally dismantled them.  The metallurgical traditions today are practiced by the lower castes in Kumaun, though Atkinson points out that the economic or social status of these castes in the past was not as low as it is now.

Further Reading

Agrawal. D.P. 1999. Ancient Metal Technology & Archaeology of South Asia. Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Agrawal D.P., J.S. Kharakwal, Sheela Kusumgar and M.G., Yadava.1995. Cist burials of the Kumaun Himalayas. Antiquity 69(264): 550-554.

Agrawal, D.P. and J.S. Kharakwal. 1998. Central Himalayas: an Archaeological, Linguistic and Culural Synthesis. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.

Agrawal, D.P. and Vibha Tripathi. 1999. Early Indian iron technology, Himalayan contacts and Gangetic urbanisation. In Proc. The Fourth International Conference on the Beginning of the Use on Metals and Alloys (BUMA-IV). Matsue, Japan: The Japan Institute of Metals. Pp.53-58.

Chakrabarti, Dilip K. 1992. The Early Use Of Iron In India. Madras : Oxford University Press.

Krishnamurty, M and V.S. Krishnaswamy. 1986. Status of mineral exploration and reserves in Northwest Himalayas. Proc. International Himalayan Geology Seminar, Section IV New Delhi. Calcutta: Geol. Survey of India. Pp. 300-352.

Pant, C.C. 1988. Mineral wealth of Kumaun: prospects and problems. In Kumaun: Land and People. Ed. K.S. Valdia. Naini Tal: Gyanodaya. Pp. 213- 222.

Tripathi, Vibha. 2001. The Age of Iron in India. New Delhi: Aryan Books International.